Two new shows tackle topics of mothers and racial stereotypes

Judee Tan and Siti Khalijah Zainal (both above) star in Meenah And Cheenah; and Nur Suhaili Safari Wijaya and Grace Kalaiselvi in Mother I – Amma Naan – Ibu Aku.
Judee Tan and Siti Khalijah Zainal (both above) star in Meenah And Cheenah; and Nur Suhaili Safari Wijaya and Grace Kalaiselvi in Mother I – Amma Naan – Ibu Aku. PHOTO: DREAM ACADEMY
Judee Tan and Siti Khalijah Zainal star in Meenah And Cheenah; and Nur Suhaili Safari Wijaya and Grace Kalaiselvi (both above) in Mother I - Amma Naan - Ibu Aku.
Judee Tan and Siti Khalijah Zainal star in Meenah And Cheenah; and Nur Suhaili Safari Wijaya and Grace Kalaiselvi (both above) in Mother I - Amma Naan - Ibu Aku.PHOTO: GABRIEL LIM

Two pairs of actresses take on topics of motherhood, childlessness and racial stereotypes in their shows

Two productions next month arise from two pairs of actresses finding common ground in difficult topics.

Grace Kalaiselvi and Nur Suhaili Safari Wijaya, both single and childless, spoke to 12 mothers to devise their multilingual work of verbatim theatre, Mother I - Amma Naan - Ibu Aku. It runs from May 5 to 8 at The Substation Theatre.

From May 11 to 22, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Judee Tan send up racial stereotypes in Dream Academy's Meenah And Cheenah at the Victoria Theatre.

The actresses in Mother I - Amma Naan - Ibu Aku met a few years ago while studying at the Intercultural Theatre Institute co-founded by theatre practitioners T. Sasitharan - the dramaturg for this work - and the late Kuo Pao Kun.

Suhaili, who turns 30 this year, had to drop out of the drama programme to help support her family of seven, including two brothers, three sisters and their mother. She works as a preschool teacher.

Kalaiselvi, 39 and a regular in MediaCorp's drama Tanglin, remained keen to work with Suhaili and thought of expanding on their mutual respect for their mothers.

  • BOOK IT / MOTHER I - AMMA NAAN - IBU AKU

  • WHERE: The Substation Theatre, 45 Armenian Street

    WHEN: May 5 and 6 (8pm); May 7 and 8 (2, 5 and 8pm)

    ADMISSION: $25, $35 (one adult plus one parent), $55 (one adult plus two parents). E-mail mother.amma.ibu@gmail.com to reserve

    INFO: In English, Malay and Tamil with English surtitles

    MEENAH AND CHEENAH

    WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place

    WHEN: May 11 to 22, 8pm (Tuesday to Friday), 4 and 8pm (Saturday), 4pm (Sunday)

    ADMISSION: $46 to $130 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

Her mother worked as a cleaner to support three children and was not reconciled to her youngest's acting ambitions until she realised Kalaiselvi could make a living at it.

She says: "Sometimes you have this tension with your parents. You don't want to talk to them, but you don't know what they've gone through."

Suhaili says: "The piece is not personal, but there's a similar thread in all the interviews we've done. We see similarities in how our own mothers struggled."

The performance includes the stories of single mothers, women who cannot have children and women who have chosen not to.

All the women interviewed have been invited to the performance, including Suhaili's mother, whose voice will be heard singing lullabies during the show.

There are discounts for viewers who want to buy tickets for one or both parents and Kalaiselvi plans to have her mother in the audience too.

"For a long time, my mother has been asking why I don't want to get married and have kids," she says. "She'll understand why I wanted to do this project."

Meenah And Cheenah is also born out of friendship, starting when Tan and Siti shared a dressing room in 2012 during Dream Academy's stand-up comedy, Happy Ever Laughter.

They pulled funny faces at each other in the mirror while posing in ethnically inspired costumes and called each other "meenah" and "cheenah".

Siti, 30, says: "It was just a joke. Then (Dream Academy founder) Selena Tan told us she was thinking of doing a show."

Meenah And Cheenah is a series of sketches looking at how a Malay person and a Chinese person would have interacted right from the 15th- century marriage of princess Hang Li Po and the Sultan of Malacca, down to the present day.

The script is written by a team headed by Alfian Sa'at and including stand-up comic Rishi Budhrani. Selena Tan directs.

To devise the material, the actresses shared stories about irritating stereotypes or misunderstandings over ethnic customs.

Siti says she still gets odd questions about the fasting month, including: "What if you swallow your own saliva? Does that break the fast?"

On the positive side, Malay wedding customs now incorporate the Chinese tradition of getting the groom to overcome obstacles before he can take the bride home.

Similarly, Judee Tan finds her Malay friends know more about Chinese New Year customs than she does.

"My Malay friend has been banking in money every year during Chinese New Year for good luck. I've not been doing that and I consider myself quite 'ching chong'," she says, using the pejorative term used to mock the Chinese.

"In Singapore, we don't talk about racial tensions. But here in this show, we don't just tolerate differences, we celebrate them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2016, with the headline 'Women get tough'. Print Edition | Subscribe